`Hi-ho, the derry-o,' be a farmer in the dell

Email|Print| Text size + By Clare Innes
Globe Correspondent / July 9, 2006

RUMNEY, N.H. -- Wherever we wander ed on this 200-acre mix of farm and forest, deep, cloven hoof marks mingle d in the mud with boot prints. As we leaned against a fence that separated us from two enormous oxen, I met the creatures responsible for some of these prints.

``This is Henry and Autumn," said my guide, Abby Holm, 29, as they lumber ed toward us. Holm is the farm manager at D Acres, which is dedicated to promoting principles of sustainability. Henry -- or maybe it was Autumn -- planted a giant smooch on Holm's face. Autumn -- or maybe Henry -- approached me and accepted a scratch under the chin before his tongue snaked out for a taste of my jacket. One look in his soft eyes and I want ed to throw my arms around his tawny neck.

Hundreds of small farms across New England are throwing open their barn doors and welcoming visitors to hang with the heifers, share a meal with the farmhands, harvest their own produce, or spend a day learning a skill. With corporate mega-farms and foreign competitors -- and the legislative loopholes that favor them -- undercutting small farmers at every turn, agricultural tourism keeps many afloat when milk and produce prices take a dive.

At D Acres of New Hampshire, for example, visitors can attend workshops on pruning, raising chickens, sustainable forestry, or turning a lawn into a garden. The encyclopedic list is aimed at anyone with a patch of land or the desire to work with their hands.

A quick tour before the day's rustic furniture building class yielded a shiny satellite dish reincarnated as a solar oven. On a sunny day, a pot of veggies placed in its center will be steaming in two minutes flat. A hobbit -like earthen hut houses chickens and pigs. A pair of retired goats lay serenely in the sun. Logs seeded with shiitake mushroom spores line d a trail through the woods.

``This is a farm -- where are your fields?" said Bill Dailey, 70, of Holderness, who had signed up for the class. An intern from Colorado, here to learn about sustainable farming, explain ed that there are untilled plots throughout the grounds that yield organic produce, herbs, and flowers. On the theory that nature doesn't plow, they don't plow here either.

Instead, they apply compost and mulch on top of the soil, resulting in a springy layering of nutrients and helpful organisms.

Class began with eight students whose woodworking experience ranged from little to lifelong. Wood-crafting training manager Sam Payton, 25, a fine-furniture builder, showed us how to make sturdy table legs out of crooked branches of birch.

We use d traditional hand tools and modern power tools to fashion the mortise -and -tenon joints. After a day of collaborating on a couple of tables, we left with visions of hand-hewn furniture filling our homes.

At Tangerini's Spring Street Farm in Millis, Mass., classes in making window boxes, living wreaths, hanging herb baskets, and landscape design draw visitors from all over New England. Laura Tangerini, 48, and her husband Charlie, 62, have been farming here for 11 years, during which their property has evolved into a destination farm with a cafe, children's mini-farm, trails, hay rides, and pick-your-own vegetables, fruit, and flowers.

``You can only get so much from selling produce," said Laura Tangerini. When they diversified into agritourism, their annual income more than quadrupled.

``People can't take their kids to grandma and grandpa's farm anymore," said Beth Kennett, 50, owner of Liberty Hill Farm , a small, family dairy operation in Rochester, Vt., and chairwoman of the Vermont Farms! Association. `` . . . People still want that authentic farm experience. They want to know where their food is coming from, and they want their children to know."

She recounted how some visitors are surprised to learn that a cow has to have a calf before she can give milk, or that eggs come from living, squawking chickens. Or that, on average, supermarket produce travels 1,500 miles to reach your table .

``Farms are the hub of community," said Kennett. ``We're the original stewards of the land. When people leave here, they have a better understanding of how every choice they make has a local as well as a global impact." She recalled a visitor from New Jersey who later found out that sweet corn in her supermarket at home had come from New Zealand. After her visit to Liberty Hill, she was inspired to wait until she could buy it from a farmer in her community.

A Boy Scout troop from Staten Island visits Liberty Hill each year to help with chores and soak up the Vermont countryside. The scouts helped prepare a field for planting by participating in a three-hour rock-picking session, which yielded lessons on glaciers and frost heaves and history and where stone walls come from , and, yes, even a little gratitude.

``I'll never have an ice-cream cone again without thinking about how someone had to clear some field," Kennett quoted one scout as saying.

On an early spring visit to Tregelly's Fiber Farm in Hawley , Mass., I was greeted by eight dogs -- all barking, tails wagging. The Chihuahua mix yapped brassily. The big, white Maremma required some wooing to bring him within petting range.

``We're a casual, extended family of animals," said Jody Cothey, 60, who owns Tregelly's with her husband, Ed, 53. ``We're also fiberholics." With the exotic blend of fiber harvested from their llamas, camels, yaks, goats, and other animals, Ed Cothey weaves blankets and rugs, which he sells in their combination weaving studio and farm shop.

On this day, Samson, a 5 1/2-day-old Bactrian camel , was swaddled in a down jacket, in critical condition, and too weak to stand. Goosebumps ran down my spine as the worried mama lowed like a multitonal throat singer. The vet was summoned and advise d them to haul baby and mama to the Large Animal Hospital at Tufts New England Veterinary Center for observation.

A local man was visiting the farm with three young girls. They watch ed as Ed Cothey and his Tibetan right-hand man, Thinley Dhargay, 37, pad ded the cab of their truck with hay before gently placing the baby inside. Cothey explained what was happening to the man and the girls.

Weeks later, I learn ed that Samson was back at the farm and growing rapidly into another of the handsome, towering creatures that provide the Cotheys with baskets of gorgeous fiber, and the children who visit, a sweet summertime of memories.

Contact Clare Innes, a freelance writer in Vermont, at indigoclare@yahoo.com.

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